Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Most Important Person You Never Heard Of

I am reading Michael Pollan's latest book, THE OMNIVORE'S DILEMMA. I found his previous book, THE BOTANY OF DESIRE, utterly charming. In that one, he traced the history of humankind's interactions with four plants: tulips, potatoes, apples, and marijuana. He does the same in DILEMMA for various kinds of foodstuffs: corn, organic produce, hunted game. This time, however, he is not interested in being charming.

I am only part way through the first section, on corn, and already I am half-resolved to never eat feedlot beef again. The book is packed with detail, interesting and disgusting and problematic, and time and time again I realize how ignorant I am about the food I eat, the agriculture that grows it, and the people who made that possible. I never, for instance, as much as heard of Fritz Haber, but without him I probably wouldn't exist. Neither would about 2/5 of the world's population.

In 1909 Haber discovered the process by which nitrogen from the air can be "fixed" into molecules usable by human beings. Before that, all the available nitrogen on the surface of the Earth had been "fixed" by bacteria growing on the roots of legumes or by the odd lightning strike. It wasn't enough fixed nitrogen to create enough fertilizer to cultivate enough food. Haber received the Nobel Prize in 1920 for his process.

The reason I never heard of him was that the rest of his history is checkered (creating synthetic nitrate for German explosives and poison gases in World War I). But without his process, the human population would have hit mass starvation long before now. Pollan identifies this as "a mixed blessing," and explores the pluses and minuses of our ability to increase "commodity corn" yield to nearly 200 bushels per acre. And this is only one of the fascinating byways of this exhaustively researched, well-written, and entertaining book.



S.M.D. said...

That's actually pretty interesting. Maybe my WWI history is far more rusty than my WWII history, but I don't quite understand the correlation between being in that war and that being a reason to be relegated to the underside of history...I mean, I get it if someone was a Nazi working in a concentration camp, but WWI, if I recall correctly, was a bad war, but a different kind of war. But please educate me if I'm being a moron. I admit my ignorance of that period. I know the basics, not the gritty details. I'm far more knowledgeable about WWII, to be honest (seeing how that war is my "favorite").

Nick A said...

Another book for the TBR list.

Haber and WW1 makes me think of the modern world's amazing capability to ignore the potential impact of technological change. Compare the modern world's ignorance of advances in genetic research to the population of Europe in 1914. WW1 started, and most populations of the participating countries participated without any real awareness of two 'new' weapons: poison gas and the machine gun. Four years later, 1 in 7 French young men were dead, with similar ratios for most other countries...

...what do we face?

Rob said...

I would say that rather than helping avoid mass starvation (which was only because two world wars had put a serious dent in agriculture in Europe), the process enabled the human population explosion.

More curious still is what will happen when the cheap hydrocarbons needed to fix nitrogen as a fertilizer are no longer cheap.

Perhaps the mass starvation has not been avoided, but merely deferred.

I had heard of "The Omnivore's Dilemma" a couple of years ago and have just requested it from my library to finally read it.


S.M.D. said...

Rob: I agree with you that we've only deferred mass starvation. I think the reality is that we're reproducing too fast to sustain (as a species in general). There will come a point where I think we'll have to either institute worldwide breeding laws (similar to China's), or find a way to move masses of people off planet. I suspect the former will occur first only because I don't think we're going to get off Earth within the next 200 years in any significant way. Bases on the moon, Mars, the asteroid field, and general space, sure, but we're not going to be colonizing. That's just what I think, though, based on the last 20 years or so.